Friday, August 22, 2014
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The Olympics are a matter of perspective

Men´s slalom winners Austria´s Mario Matt and his teammate Austria´s Marcel Hirscher celebrate on the podium at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. (Gero Breloer/AP)
Men's slalom winners Austria's Mario Matt and his teammate Austria's Marcel Hirscher celebrate on the podium at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. (Gero Breloer/AP)
Men´s slalom winners Austria´s Mario Matt and his teammate Austria´s Marcel Hirscher celebrate on the podium at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. (Gero Breloer/AP) Gallery: The Olympics are a matter of perspective

SOCHI - An Olympic Games is like a Rohrschach test.

An indistinct ink-blot of enormous athletic and logistical complexity, each Olympiad is viewed through the prism of individual experiences.

Butterfly or bat?

It all depends.

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  • If you're an athlete, how you see Sochi probably is closely related to where you finished in your event and where you stayed in the athletes' village.

    If you're a visitor, your answer might be colored by how many events you saw or how many stray dogs you encountered.

    If you're South Korean, you're furious with the women's figure-skating results.

    If you're Russian, the women's figure-skating results were the Games' highlight.

    For nations, however, there's a tangible Olympic measuring stick. It's called the medals table.

    It's not perfect. Wealth, population, and athletic investment help determine exactly where you sit at that table. But ultimately the seating arrangement makes a lot more sense than the BCS.

    Examining it, those who see butterflies will be impressed by the performance of U.S. athletes at these 2014 Winter Olympics.

    The Americans, who will march into Fisht Olympic Stadium Sunday night behind flag-bearer Julie Chu had won 27 medals in Sochi through Saturday night.

    Though that total left them just behind host Russia, it was more than any previous U.S. team had amassed at a Games held outside of North America.

    Nine were gold, a total topped only by the 10 that Americans collected in the friendly confines of Salt Lake City in 2002.

    U.S. Alpine skiers captured five medals, including two gold, and our snowboarders and freestyle skiers - with the notable exception of Shaun White - performed nearly as well as expected.

    Maybe just as important, that success wasn't diminished by embarrassing reports of U.S. athletes trashing hotel rooms or failing drug tests. The ugly American is pretty comely these days.

    Stories about U.S. competitors here have been overwhelmingly positive, involving stray-dog adoptions, moving tributes to deceased relatives, and gracious salutes to victorious opponents.

    Teenage Alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin impressed with her eloquence as much as her ability. Refreshing snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg became an overnight sensation. Even Bode Miller, who turns up as often in tabloid headlines as on podiums, broke down and cried.

    But in looking closer at the U.S. performance here, there's plenty to feed the bat perspective, too.

    Those 27 medals - it could be 28 or 29 by the time Sochi's flame is extinguished Sunday - were a far cry from Vancouver, where the U.S. ran away with the medal race, collecting a personal-best 37.

    "Vancouver was a once-in-a-lifetime performance," said Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "While that's a good benchmark from an aspirational standpoint, it's not a realistic expectation every time we compete because it was just so special. It was like competing on home soil - our time zone, our culture, our food. And combined with that, our athletes had a lot of lifetime-best performances."

    That didn't happen nearly as often in Sochi.

    American figure-skaters fell flat - and a variety of other ways. They got a team bronze and an ice-dance gold, and that was it.

    No American male, female, or pair landed a podium spot - or very many triple-axels for that matter.

    U.S. women now have had back-to-back medal-less Games for the first time in 66 years. The men have two medals in the last six Olympics. No American pair has earned one since 1988.

    "There's always going to be times when you say, 'Oh my gosh, I wish that athlete had done better,' " said Alan Ashley, director of sports for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "But just as many times there are surprises. There's like a whole generation of athletes that are new who surprised people here."

    Our speedskaters surprised. But not in the way Ashley had in mind.

    Short- and long-trackers, who combined for 10 medals in Vancouver, got one in Sochi, in a short-track relay.

    It was their worst performance ever.

    Worse, their dysfunction boiled over in public. They blamed uniforms, training, coaching, administration. It all played out at Adler Arena like some slippery soap opera.

    "We weren't the only nation that got smoked by the Netherlands [whose speedskaters won 21 medals]," Blackmun said. "It was a deep dive, but to understand it fully will require good analysis, thorough analysis."

    In the hockey arenas, both U.S. teams lost to Canada.


    "It's not as if we're doing worse," said Blackmun. "The medals are being spread around more. There's a growing diversity of sports, athletes, and nations that is good for the Games."

    In the end, of course, the race for medals is as pointless a competition as the Cold War nuclear arms race.

    When Ukraine's biathlon-relay team won that nation's first gold medal in two decades Saturday, it didn't ameliorate the bloodshed in Kiev.

    And Norway's disproportionate medal success won't win it a seat at the next G-7 summit.

    The Olympics will endure no matter how the hardware is distributed, no matter how many hotel rooms go unfinished, no matter how indecipherable its figure-skating judging remains.

    As for my personal Rohrschach result at the 2014 Games, the buses ran on time, the venues were convenient, the people and the athletes were friendly.

    I saw a butterfly in Sochi.



    Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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